Despite public opinion of it becoming mixed over the last decade or so I still love Zelda II. The shift in viewpoint and gameplay turned away many and I’ll admit it has flaws. But at the same time it is still a great game overall and probably the title that made me love action Rpgs. This made me really want to play Faxanadu back in the day. The cover blurb about daggers, and wingboots, mantras and monsters instantly reminded me of Nintendo’s classic and while it took some time to eventually find it I was not let down. Faxanadu is one of the best NES games of all time and still a delight today.
Faxanadu is a spinoff of Falcom’s long running Dragon Slayer series. The title is a portmanteau of Famicom and Xanadu signaling its Nintendo status. As a wandering Elvin adventurer you return to your hometown of Eolis to find it in ruins. The neighboring dwarves have been mutated by mysterious means and wreaking havoc in the World Tree. As the last capable warrior the King chooses you to deal with the threat.
It’s impossible to know if Hudson were influenced by the Adventure of Link but it can’t be denied that Faxanadu plays very similarly. There is a burgeoning cache of weapons and armor to purchase as well as items to collect. Unlike that game there is no separate overworld map, not that it is necessary. One aspect that will take some getting used to is movement. The hero builds up momentum as he walks. It’s awkward and gets in the way constantly as there is a decent amount of platforming involved surprisingly. You do get used to it but it never feels natural.
Combat in the early stages can be frustrating due to your short reach. The dagger does not do a good job of keeping enemies away, forcing you to rely on magic. There are a number of spells that are incredibly powerful however magic can only be replenished back in towns. Towards the end magic takes a back seat as the mp cost is far too high to use consistently as a result. I suppose it would be game breaking otherwise; later spells such as death and tilte destroy most enemies and bosses in two hits.
Experience is handled differently here. There is no leveling system per se even though you do gain experience points. Instead it is used to increase your rank when visiting gurus in town. Your rank determines the amount of gold you begin with when resuming the game. On its face it doesn’t sound that useful but smart players can game the system a bit to earn money and equipment faster.
Progress is surprisingly straightforward. Unlike the majority of rpgs from that era you are given frequent guidance and direction. Most areas aren’t so large that you will get lost until close to the end. There are a number of towers and castles that aren’t plot relevant you can explore for items. If you simply follow the necessary story path the game is actually kind of short by RPG standards. But I’ll take a well-paced adventure over a bloated epic any day.
Faxanadu looks great for an NES title even if it is a bit repetitive. The entire game takes place in the World Tree itself with distinct districts. You begin at the base of the trees roots where the blue sky is still visible. By the middle of the game you are near its peak where the poisonous mist from the meteorite obscures your vision. This is the most atmospheric area in the game and really sells its motif well. The top of the tree is visibly spectacular as the tree’s branches and the civilization built around it offer much needed variety. One nice touch that was rare in that period is visible armor when equipped. While there is visual variety is high overall the color palette is overly brown and green and you’ll tire of it before long. The soundtrack is fantastic and one of the best on the system.
One area I’m glad Faxanadu does not have in common with Zelda II is difficulty. For the most part the game is easy if a bit frustrating at times. Red potions are cheap and can be found frequently and refill your health completely. There are many enemies that drop meat when killed and respawn if you leave the room. Most of your frustration will come from terrible enemy placement and the need to constantly backtrack to buy keys. It is incredibly cheap to place boss level monsters in front of the entrance to a room yet the game does it constantly. Keys are needed to open specific doors every time, with certain ones only sold in specific towns. If you aren’t aware of this beforehand you can easily waste time and money traveling back and forth. It sounds minor but is a big problem late in the game.
Niggling issues aside Faxanadu is one of the best action RPGs for the NES. The similarities to Zelda II are probably the reason Nintendo published it in the US, using comparable box art too. Comparisons aside it stands on its own as a great game worth killing an afternoon or two with.